2024 Northwest Indiana Women on the Rise

February 1, 2024

The Leadership Institute and Society of Innovators at PNW have named the 2024 Women on the Rise. The list includes leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs who are making an impact across Northwest Indiana.

These are the women shaping business, guiding communities and encouraging economic growth in our region’s communities. They achieved success in 2023 and are bringing that dynamic momentum with them into the new year.

2024 Northwest Indiana Women on the Rise Reception

Meet the 2024 Women on the Rise

Samantha BeanSamantha Bean (Valparaiso, Ind.)

Director of Marketing and Communications

Porter County Community Foundation

Samantha Bean is a marketing communicator and graphic designer with a passion for helping others. She currently serves as the director of marketing and communications for the Porter County Community Foundation and is a freelance graphic designer.

She is a proud alumna of Indiana University Bloomington.

In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her family and friends, relaxing, participating in community theater and being a new mom to a 14-month-old, Malcolm.

What were some personal highlights for you in 2023?

  • Working with nonprofits to help make Northwest Indiana a better place to live, work and raise a family
  • being named one of the Time’s 20 Under 40
  • Raising my son

What do you look forward to in 2024?

I look forward to continually trying to make this world a better place for everyone through my work and by raising my son to do the same.

What gives you hope right now for the future?

What gives me hope right now and for the future is all the great work I see others doing in my town, county and Northwest Indiana overall. I’m proud to be a part of it and I can’t wait to see where 2024 takes me!

Felicia BlakelyFelicia Blakely (Michigan City, Ind.)

Executive Pastor/President & Founder

Diamonds & Pearls Mentorship for Girls & High Praise Outreach Ministries

Felicia Blakely is the executive pastor of High Praise Outreach Ministries. She has served in the role for 19 years. Blakely is married with five children. She has been a registered medical assistant for over 20 years and is currently finishing a registered nurse degree program. Blakely is a certified life coach and is the president and founder of the non-profit program Diamonds and Pearls Mentorship for girls, where she guides around 30 girls weekly and has around 50 girls enrolled.

Blakely is the founder of a city-wide faith movement called “Girl Get Up” where she meets with over 200 women regularly. She hosts an annual breast cancer with around 100 Women in Pink. She has hosted community prayer rallies to unify the city, community give-backs and food and toy drives. Blakely is a “purpose-pusher” who believes life is a process of becoming that is influenced by mistakes we have made and lessons we have learned.

What were some personal highlights for you in 2023?

  • I was overly joyous and humbled of how the community came together for our Women’s empowerment conference! People from all walks of life coming together in one building to be inspired/ encouraged/ supported/motivated and changed!
  • Enrolling back in school now that all of my children are grown and graduating college.
  • Some of the reports from parents whose children are apart of my mentoring program and to see the changes for the better in the home and school. It just brings joy to my heart.

What do you look forward to in 2024?

  • I look forward to seeing my daughter get accepted into Law school. Seeing my family healthy and prosperous. Honestly that’s my biggest big flex “my family”.
  • Professionally- I’ll be graduating college with my Nursing degree and looking forward to just being impactful and continuing to make a difference one person at a time!

What gives you hope right now for the future?

Seeing unity in action.

Whitney BradshawWhitney Bradshaw (Michigan City, Ind.)


Lubeznik Center for the Arts

Whitney Bradshaw is an artist, activist, educator, curator and former social worker who lives and works in Chicago and Michigan City, Indiana. She is currently the curator at the Lubeznik Center for the Arts and was previously the chair of the visual art conservatory at the Chicago High School for the Arts for ten years. Before that she was the curator of the renowned LaSalle Bank Photography Collection and an adjunct professor at Columbia College Chicago for thirteen years.

Prior to that she was a curatorial assistant and assistant registrar at the Museum of Contemporary Photography. Bradshaw’s personal work has been widely exhibited across the United States and in Zurich with solo shows at Atlanta Contemporary, the DePaul Art Museum, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Wave Pool Contemporary Art Fulfillment Center, the Photographic Center Northwest, McCormick Gallery, the Tarble Arts Center, Adler University, the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, Villanova University and more.

Her work can be found in the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, the DePaul Art Museum, Columbia College Chicago, Northwestern School of Law, Agnes Scott College, Dawoud Bey and the Sara M. and Michelle Vance Waddell collection and have been published in Ms. Magazine, the New York Times, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, Time Out New York and Vogue among many others.

In 2018 and again in 2021, WTTW Chicago Tonight ran a segment on Bradshaw’s celebrated social project, OUTCRY. This fall (2023), she was listed as one of NewCity Magazine’s ART50 Chicago Artists to watch.

What were some personal highlights for you in 2023?

2023 was a big year for me. I accepted my new position as curator at the Lubeznik Center for the Arts in September of 2023 and mounted my first exhibition in October. I was named one of 50 Chicago Artist’s Artists in NewCity Magazine. I had the opportunity to attend my first artist residency at the beautiful Ragdale in Lake Forest, IL and traveled across the country engaging in activism, mounting exhibitions and holding empowering scream sessions with my social practice project, OUTCRY. Both me and the project are the subject of an upcoming short documentary about the work.

We have been filming most of 2023 and are excited to finish it up soon so we can screen it across the country prior to the 2024 election. My daughter Ruby, who is an endless source of inspiration and joy, moved across the country to LA to pursue her dreams. Though I miss her immensely, I am thrilled for her and excited to see what all she does.

What do you look forward to in 2024?

I am looking forward to mounting new, exciting and meaningful exhibitions at Lubeznik and connecting with more artists in the region. I am eager to get the OUTCRY: Alchemists of Rage documentary film out into the world and continue to travel across the country doing activist work and engaging communities in OUTCRY leading up to the critical 2024 election.

I am very excited to share another project titled Slow Release about mother daughter relationships, intersectional community and pivotal transitions in an exhibition this summer in Chicago. I am planning to spend a fair amount of time learning more, experimenting in my art and curatorial practices, enjoying time with my family + friends and working on achieving better balance and focus on self-care overall.

What gives you hope right now for the future?

Seeing more women, BIPOC and LGBTQ folks move into positions of power gives me the greatest hope for the future. I am absolutely thrilled to see Minnesota swear in its first city council made up entirely of women and 6 of the 7 members are women of color. Having a greater diversity of people in spaces where decisions are made is better for the world as more of our voices and experiences will be understood, supported and fought for.

Julie DessauerJulie Dessauer (Knox, Ind.)

Owner & Operator

Papa Farm Pizza

Julie Dessauer is a small farmer, pizzeria and food trailer owner. She is a lifelong learner, choosing to use her training and experience to build her future through small business. Papa Farm Pizza’s wood-fired pizza trailer was opened in August 2021, with Papa Farm Pizza’s main location opening just 5 months later on January 1, 2022. It’s a business that she and her husband have been working toward for over 20 years. Her journey includes executive levels of non-profit work, buying and selling wholesale, the specialty food industry, small farming, finance, communications and business ownership.

In each industry, she strived to learn specific skills, allowing her to create a business that serves her community, can grow and be sustainable. Papa Farm Pizza is located at 10 N Main Street in Knox, Indiana. In addition to the restaurant, it serves as the base for the food trailer. This allows greater flexibility for staff and keeps a wide variety of opportunities available, helping to sustain them in a small community.

Pioneering Pig Homestead is her small farm. The farm’s focus is growing pasture-raised, healthy, humanely treated meat and eggs along with nutrient-dense vegetables, herbs, honey and goat milk using sustainable methods. The foods grown are now used in the pizzeria and the goat milk for soaps and body butter which are sold at the pizzeria.

Julie is hopeful to create a staple in her community.

What were some personal highlights for you in 2023?

Personal highlights of 2023 include having my business featured in Lakes Magazine, winning 2nd place in the Starke Tank competition to assist with moving my business forward, completing the purchase of the pizzeria building and securing our highest number of catering and pizza cart events to date. Being an employer. Another accomplishment is growing our Indiana Homesteaders group on Facebook to over 37,000 members connecting Indiana Hoosiers. By completing each of these, I proved to myself that I can do anything I set my mind to.

What do you look forward to in 2024?

This year, my goals are to pull away from working the business more to be able to run the business more. A second goal is to be able to plant more crops for the pizzeria. With all that I have been doing, I have gotten away from some of my farm production as I needed my efforts to focus on the pizzeria. I feel there is some time now to grow that business again. A third goal is to procure items from local small businesses to add to my retail corner at the pizzeria in an effort to help others grow their businesses.

What gives you hope right now for the future?

There is a movement toward self-sustainability and shopping local. This brings me hope that small businesses can be sustained among the giants.

Sara DeYoungSara DeYoung (Lake Village, Ind.)

Executive Director

Jasper County Economic Development Organization

Sara DeYoung is a passionate community and economic development director dedicated to what drives communities, large and small, to grow and evolve. A naturally inquisitive person, she wondered why the largest landfill in the country was located outside her hometown of Brook, Indiana. This led her to pursue degrees in Environmental Science and Communications from Purdue University.

After college, she was hired as the Communications Coordinator for a mineral mining company in Baltimore, Maryland, but came back to Indiana to marry her farming husband. After moving back, she worked for local newspapers, volunteered and traveled through several communities. Her curiosity was again piqued by seeing some small towns that were thriving and others dying.

DeYoung graduated from Ball State’s Community and Economic Development Course in 2016 and was a Leadership Northwest Indiana graduate in 2016 as well. She is the past director of Remington Wolcott Community Development Organization and was hired as Jasper County Economic Development Organization’s Executive Director in April of 2023.

DeYoung has been a board member of Newton County Farm Bureau, the Northwest Indiana Paddlers, Newton County 4-H Council and the Jasper Newton Community Foundation.

She lives and farms in Lake Village, Indiana, with her husband, Josh and three children, Otto, Evelyn and Emmett.

What were some personal highlights for you in 2023?

In 2023 I came onboard Jasper County Economic Development Organization and Tourism Commission as Executive Director. I work with a small but mighty team, we are a 2.5 person office! We have a wonderful board as well as amazing communities and people who want to put in the time and effort to build on Jasper County’s creative, bold, agrarian strengths.

What do you look forward to in 2024?

In 2024 I look forward to professionally executing on the vision we put into place for JCEDO and JCTC in 2023. We developed a strategic plan for our Tourism Commission and aligned our efforts in Economic Development with tourism and quality of life. We are striving to collaborate and build on our strengths to showcase Jasper County.

Personally, I’m looking forward to more trips with my children who are 2, 7 and 9. We are getting much better at travelling as a family unit and it’s a joy to watch them discover new places.

What gives you hope right now for the future?

What gives me hope is talking to other community members who are working hard and need guidance, a connection, or just a cheerleader, to make their initiative really take off. There are amazing things happening all around us, we just need to ask a few more questions or make a connection to create a larger impact.

Emmani EllisEmmani Ellis (Merrillville, Ind.)

COO, IronWorkz Corporation
CEO, No Limit Living LLC

Emmani Ellis is a driven, personable, continuous learner ready to make change in her communities. She graduated this past December 2023 where she double majored in Mechatronics and Robotics Engineering Technology with a Certificate in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Purdue University! She is the current founder and CEO of No Limit Living, LLC and co-founder and COO of IronWorkz Corporation.

She grew up in Gary, Indiana, but went to school in Lake Station, IN, until her sophomore year of high school. She transferred to Merrillville High School where she started her first business doing mobile device repair, Ramani Repair, during her junior year of high school. Throughout college, she dedicated her time to her studies while networking and building her relationships with peers as well as key movers and shakers around the United States.

She’s held 5 collegiate internships: two with Southlake Automation (Merrillville, IN), two with Tesla (Reno, NV & Austin, TX) and one with Steelcase (Grand Rapids, MI) before shifting her focus back to entrepreneurship and launching her two current ventures.

What were some personal highlights for you in 2023?

  • Receiving the Black Engineer of the Year Student Leadership Award in Maryland
  • Receiving a Techpoint Student Entrepreneur of the Year Nomination
  • Launching 2 Companies, IronWorkz and No Limit Living, LLC
  • Purchasing a DJI Drone for Real Estate Drone Photography
  • Graduating from Purdue University with a dual major in Mechatronics and Robotics Engineering Technology and a certificate in Entrepreneurship and Innovation

What do you look forward to in 2024?

  • Spending more time with family!
  • Going roller skating more frequently
  • Build companies to a cash flow-positive state
  • Build No Limit Living’s Brand Presence
  • Master professional speaking skills

What gives you hope right now for the future?

Seeing the spark in my peers when they learn something new.

Lilian Franco LopezLiliana Franco López (Michigan City, Ind.)

Operations Director
Economic Development Corporation Michigan City

Liliana is the Operations Director at the Michigan City EDC, working with the team to implement goals and objectives of the organization’s Strategic Action Plan as well as assist with project management, workforce, entrepreneurial and community development and event planning. She also is the lead on administrative actions, budget management and human resources support.

Franco López was born and raised in Puerto Rico and graduated from Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico with an International Business Administration bachelor’s degree (BBA) with a concentration in Human Resources Management. In 2017, Liliana relocated to the U.S. where she started her career as a Talent Acquisition Specialist and focused on workforce development and hiring candidates for the manufacturing industry in Northwest Indiana and the Chicagoland area.

What were some personal highlights for you in 2023?

  • Became the Operations Director for the Economic Develpment Corporation.
  • Earned the Entrepreneurship Center Management (ECM) Certificate Program from the International Business Innovation Association.
  • Served at a Latina Woman Professional Panel to empower young Latina students in their educational and professional path in LP County.
  • Joined the Rotary Club of Michigan City as one of their Board Members.
  • Signed up for the course of Leadership Northwest Indiana at PNW to master my leadership skills and be able to help the MC community grow and prosper in different ways.

What do you look forward to in 2024?

Both personally and professionally, I look forward this year to accomplishing what will be the biggest project of my career: to bring a one of kind entrepreneurship center to Michigan City, where residents, institutions, students and businesses can enjoy a place where they can find resources, have maker space, educational programs and resources for the community as well as have coworking spaces, retail and shops in the same environment, among other amenities.

I’m highly committed and motivated to serve the Michigan City community and continue my participation, involvement and continued education as a leader for my organization and for this community.

What gives you hope right now for the future?

We, in the NWI region, have so much to offer, from a talented workforce, residents and leaders to small businesses, resources and attractions. I am hopeful for the future of our region and particularly Michigan City’s future. I’ve seen how this community has made me feel since I arrived; they have welcomed me with open arms. This community has given me and many others great opportunities and has made my family and I feel at home with a sense of belonging.

I’m hopeful for the future of Michigan City and the whole region and hopeful for a leadership that works and fights towards a common goal: the wellbeing of all, a diverse community, the born and raised here, the adopted Hoosiers (like me) and the future generations. I hope that as a region we can all feel proud of how much we have accomplished when we look back, for both our residents and our visitors.

Kylee Fraze NormanKylee Fraze Norman (La Porte, Ind.)

CLH, CPAs & Consultants

Approachable and outgoing, Kylee has over 15 years of experience in the accounting industry and is known for building a strong rapport with clients and the firm’s team. With a keen interest in taxation, Kylee serves as the company’s tax department lead, including overseeing research and application of tax regulations, implementing and managing tax department protocol, upholding quality control standards, administering tax software and coordinating staff development and training in areas of taxation. Having joined CLH initially as a senior staff accountant in 2015, Kylee advanced into the position of director and later a partner in the firm.

The Northwest Indiana Influential Women Association (NWIIWA) named Kylee their 2022 Supporter of the Year, the same year she was also nominated as a NWIIWA Influential Women Finalist in Finance in recognition of her contributions to the accounting industry, including mentorship of young professionals. As a partner, Kylee looks forward to extending her involvement in coaching the firm’s accounting professionals and helping to shape their future careers.

One of the firm’s Michigan City natives, Kylee graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Accounting from Purdue University in 2006 and earned her CPA credential in 2009. She’s invested in the local community by serving as treasurer for the Boys & Girls Club of La Porte County since 2015 and is an Ex-Officio Executive Committee Member of Northwest Indiana Influential Women Association as of 2020.

When she’s not at the office, Kylee enjoys a variety of fitness pursuits and spending quality time with her husband and daughter.

What were some personal highlights for you in 2023?

Making partner, watching a mentor receive a lifetime achievement award.

What do you look forward to in 2024?

Become physically stronger; professional growth.

What gives you hope right now for the future?

The younger generations are bright and they care deeply about social issues. I believe they can change the landscape for the world.

Amy FryAmy Fry (Hammond and Westville, Ind.)

Dean, College of Nursing
Purdue University Northwest

Amy Fry is the dean of the College of Nursing at Purdue University Northwest. The college’s programming serves approximately 1,600 students seeking to elevate their careers and make a difference. Working with a team of approximately 45 faculty and staff members, PNW’s College of nursing focuses on preparing students to be effective, ethical and innovative leaders in their nursing careers and communities.

Prior to the dean appointment, she served as a clinical professor of nursing and as the director of the college’s nationally recognized online programs, including PNW’s RN-to-BSN program and Master of Science in Nursing online. She has taught nursing to undergraduate and graduate-level nursing students for more than 12 years, both through in-person and online learning settings. Fry’s clinical background includes neurology, case management and trauma nursing.

What were some personal highlights for you in 2023?

Being asked to serve as the interim Dean in the College of Nursing at Purdue University Northwest. Working with faculty and students to conduct our first in-person nursing pinning ceremony post pandemic and being asked to speak at the Pinning ceremony.

Having an article published with my co-researcher in the Journal of Professional Nursing on faculty-student authorship practices.

  • Eiswirth, E.& Fry, A. (2023). Faculty-student authorship practices in nursing: Cross-sectional study. Journal of Professional Nursing, 49, 10-15. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.profnurs.2023.08.003.

What do you look forward to in 2024?

Looking forward to working with the faculty, staff and students to create and lead strategic initiatives for the College of Nursing. I also look forward to meeting healthcare leaders in the area and finding out more about how the CON can best serve their populations.

What gives you hope right now for the future?

I get really excited about the next generation of nurses and the diversity of the students who are choosing nursing as a career. The students who are entering nursing are diverse and bring experiences and perspectives that will benefit the profession and the care of our patients.

Having come out of the extremely challenging time of the pandemic, I am optimistic that this will be a time of growth and innovation for healthcare and specifically nursing.

Nicky Ali JacksonNicky Ali Jackson, Ph.D. (Hammond and Westville, Ind.)

Professor of Criminal Justice
Executive Director, Center for Justice and Post-Exoneration Assistance
Purdue University Northwest

Dr. Jackson, a Victimologist and Criminologist, is an author, researcher and professor of criminal justice at Purdue University Northwest. She is also the Executive Director of the Center for Justice and Post-Exoneration Assistance at PNW (CJPA).

Dr. Jackson has appeared in a variety of TV, radio and print media outlets, including People magazine, News Nation podcast, True Crime Daily, People Magazine Investigates, Profiling Evil, Freedom Files, Righteous Conviction podcast, Wrongful Conviction podcast and CrimeHQ, to name a few. She currently serves on numerous boards, including two prison advisory boards, Reform Alliance Advisory Board and Free at Last Coalition, to name a few.

In 2022, The Victimology of a Wrongful Conviction: Innocent Inmates and Indirect Victims, for which she was the lead author, was published by Routledge.

Her passion for truth, social justice, equality and philanthropy has resulted in numerous awards by a variety of organizations. Her most notable awards include receiving the prestigious Sagamore of the Wabash Award, the highest civilian honor granted to an Indiana resident, for her humanitarian efforts by Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb in 2021.

Additionally, in 2023, she was the recipient of the prestigious Torchbearer “Heart of Indiana” award from the Indiana Commission for Women. The Torchbearer Award is the highest accolade given to a woman in the state of Indiana. Earlier this year, Dr. Jackson was honored with a Visionary Impact award at the Champions of Diversity award ceremony hosted by Indiana Minority Business Magazine and Minority Business Review.

What were some personal highlights for you in 2023?

One of the greatest accomplishments this year was testifying before the Indiana Senate on a bill that prevents police from using deception during juvenile custodial interrogations. The bill was passed which will aid in reducing false confessions made by juveniles.

Another highlight this year was receiving a Legacy Foundation grant which allowed CJPA to conduct a police training course to six area Lake County police departments on wrongful convictions with a focus on police practices leading to wrongful arrests. The goal was to provide an informative lesson on how innocent people have been wrongly convicted and to propose solutions to the current problematic practices.

CJPA offers assistance to innocent men and women post-exoneration. It was amazing to help an elderly exoneree gain employment at a company he wanted. To know that he will be able to pay rent, make car payments, buy gas, pay his bills, as a result of the work CJPA offers is indescribable.

What do you look forward to in 2024?

Professionally, my greatest goal is to help two of our clients, both wrongly incarcerated for almost 25 years for crimes they did not commit, will be fully exonerated and able to go home to their families which is where they belong. I also look forward to creating and passing legislation that will prevent wrongful convictions from occurring. I would also like the opportunity to do a wrongful conviction training course for prosecutors.

Professionally and personally, my goal is to raise money to hire other employees to help with the enormous workload at CJPA. This will allow me the opportunity to spend more time with family and friends.

What gives you hope right now for the future?

Through the work of many advocates, there has been a spotlight on various forms of miscarriages of justice including wrongful convictions. Increased awareness and advocacy have led to positive reforms in the criminal justice system. These reforms have led to the creation of organizations, such as CJPA, throughout the country. These agencies are dedicated to investigating claims of innocence with the hope of exonerating innocent inmates.

They have made significant strides in raising awareness about factors that contribute to wrongful convictions and providing support to those who have been wrongly convicted. I am hopeful that with the work of CJPA, police and prosecutorial practices will have a closer lens placed on them to ensure that innocent persons are not falsely arrested and wrongly convicted.

Gretchen Kalk CastroGretchen Kalk-Castro (Michigan City, Ind.)

CLH, CPAs & Consultants

As a Michigan City native, Kalk-Castro graduated from Ball State University in 2000 with a Bachelor of Science in Accounting and, in 2001, graduated with a Master of Science in Accounting. She initially joined CLH, CPA’s and Consultants in 2000 through an internship and along the way served as a project manager before becoming a director and most recently a partner of the firm. She is excited for the continued opportunities to mentor others and develop the firm’s team and culture.

Kalk-Castro was selected to join the Indiana CPA Society (INCPAS) Leadership Council, which is a two-year continuing education program to develop leadership skills in the accounting field.

Kalk-Castro has serviced numerous community organizations, including currently serving as treasurer of Paladin, Inc., an advisory committee member of the Michigan City Area School Vocational Building Trades and as a board member with Leadership La Porte County. She is also a member of the professional organizations of AICPA and Indiana CPA Society.

What were some personal highlights for you in 2023?

Became partner at CLH, CPA’s and Consultants and was a finalist at the Northwest Indiana Influential Women Association awards. Received Exchangette of the Year award.

What do you look forward to in 2024?

I look forward to growing as a leader in my new role as partner. Hopefully mentoring others to help with their career path to partner. I hope to continue to learn and grow. Personally – travel as much as possible.

What gives you hope right now for the future?

Continuous innovation to help with the workforce

Beverly Mack-MartinBeverly Mack-Martin (Michigan City, Ind.)

Founder & Director of Development
The Midwest Minority Consortium for Alternative Energy Solutions

Beverly Mack-Martin is the founder and Executive Director of Images Human Services Network, her first company, which began as a sole proprietorship in 1989 and eventually became a non-profit in 2016. She has more than 30 years of experience in the fields of Mental Health and Business administration, which later included ownership of two small retail businesses.

Mack-Martin rose through the ranks of mental health, from direct care staff to Program Coordinator and progressed to agency Executive Director. She was also a Licensed Clinical Addictions Counselor (LCAC) until she retired from the field of mental health in 2023. Her current community involvement includes participation at her church and in social service groups dealing with youth development and family and community preservation.

Mack-Martin jokes that, after “watching a little too much HGTV”, in 2011, she moved from Michigan City to Indianapolis, relinquishing her previous careers in Public Administration to pursue a career as a real estate investor and Licensed General Contractor. Following many unanticipated struggles dealing with racial, gender and career discrimination, she finally received her general contractor’s license in 2015.

She currently provides residential structural and interior design rehabs in both cities. As an extension of that work and after acting as a consultant to the NAACP Soul Power solar panel installation training program, Mack-Martin, along with 3 other organizers, founded the Midwest Minority Consortium for Alternative Energy Solutions (Midwest Minority Energy Consortium) in February of 2023. As Director of Development, she envisions her role as moving the Consortium forward in its six Renewable Energy Areas of Focus for the three initially designated states of operation: Indiana, Illinois and the St. Louis metropolitan area of Missouri.

Mack-Martin holds a Master of Public Administration (Terminal) Degree from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville (SIUE) and a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Administrative Therapeutic Program Design from Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. She also holds a certificate in Christian Counseling.

What were some personal highlights for you in 2023?

Starting the Consortium, my work as an elementary school substitute teacher, expanding my construction company and being appointed to the Michigan City Sustainability Commission.

What do you look forward to in 2024?

Having been away for nearly 10 years, I look forward to renewing more Michigan City social relationships and providing grassroots community education and training about the Biden Justice40 initiatives in the expansion of the Consortium’s Midwest reach.

What gives you hope right now for the future?

My Faith in God!

Joellen MatzatJoellen Matzat (North Judson, Ind.)

Co-Owner & Operator
Lewellen Blooms

Joellen Matzat is a wife and a mother to three young boys. She graduated and received her nursing license in the spring of 2016. She and her husband started Lewellen Blooms, a small flower farm, in North Judson, Indiana in 2021.



What were some personal highlights for you in 2023?

In 2023, Lewellen Blooms was the first-place winner of The Starke County Economic Development Foundation’s Starke Tank Competition, winning $10,000 to better our small business.

What do you look forward to in 2024?

Winning Starke Tank in the fall of 2023 has opened many doors for us to follow dreams we didn’t think we’d be able to reach for another 3-5 years. With the grant we received, we were able to purchase a high tunnel hoop house to add 6-8 weeks to our growing season, allowing us to grow more flowers and new varieties. We also look forward to continuing to build stronger partnerships with local small business owners in our community as we work together to make It a better place.

What gives you hope right now for the future?

Our business started as spreading acts of kindness. In early 2020, in the heat of the pandemic, we started planting flower & vegetable seeds in our yard. Those seeds bloomed into beautiful flowers that we started dropping off on doorsteps to spread some joy during that dark and isolating time. We fell in love with the opportunity to use our flowers to spread kindness and as we transitioned into a small flower farm, we added the tagline “Spread Kindness like Wildflowers.” Each season we continue to see people purchase flowers to give to others to spread a little joy. These small acts of kindness give me hope that we are bettering our community one jar of flowers at a time.

Imani MayoImani Mayo (Crown Point, Ind.)

Director of Aging Services

Northwest Indiana Community Action

Imani Mayo was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois and moved to NWI in her early teens. She completed her bachelor’s degree from Indiana State University in recreational therapy and completed her master’s degree from the University of Toledo in health administration.

She has been in the mental health field now for 13 years in a variety of spaces, from working on the waiver with the DDS population to working in nursing homes in the community and client engagement sector, running crisis centers for individuals who suffer from mental illness and homelessness and now the director of aging services for NWI at NWICA.

Mayo enjoys spending time with her family and friends and loves to spend time with her dogs, Brick and Bella.

What were some personal highlights for you in 2023?

Helped home over 30 people in 2023 and started new mental programs and initiatives while in Massachusetts at the crisis center. I relocated back to NWI in early July of 2023.

What do you look forward to in 2024?

  • Continuing to grow and work with more entities in NWI.
  • Helping the aging population stay in their homes and find the services they need.
  • Personally, continuing to become more involved in the community and helping others reach their potential and creating safe space for people to learn and thrive when given the opportunity.

What gives you hope right now for the future?

Seeing younger generations get involved in helping with change for our future and ensuring that we all are treated with respect and dignity as we continue to age.

Melissa MitchellMelissa Mitchell (Valparaiso, Ind.)


Healthlinc, INC.

Melissa Mitchell has grown alongside HealthLinc since 2008 as she has assumed roles from Managed Care Specialist to Chief Operating Officer to her current position of Chief Innovation & Strategy Officer. As of January 1, 2024, Melissa has taken on the role of CEO at HealthLinc.

She is a graduate of Ball State University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications and has a Master’s Degree in Leadership and Management from Western Governors’ University. In 2014, she graduated from the Johnson & Johnson Health Care Executive Program at UCLA. In 2020, Melissa was inducted into the Northwest Indiana IN Business 20 Under 40 class. She also received her Lean Six Sigma Green Belt certification from Purdue University.

What were some personal highlights for you in 2023?

Highlights in 2023 include being named HealthLinc’s CEO.

What do you look forward to in 2024?

In 2024 I look forward to growing as a leader in the not for profit world. I hope to read a lot and work on journaling.

What gives you hope right now for the future?

Right now my biggest hope comes from the programs we are creating around growing and improving the workforce in our communities. The commitment to growing the available healthcare workforce in areas such as behavioral, dental and medical professionals is good for our organization, patients and communities.

Meg PiercyMeg Piercy (Munster, Ind.)



As seen on HGTV’s Renovation Goldmine, interior designer Meg Piercy started her career as a designer through her love for mixing old and new. As an owner of MegMade, with two locations in Chicago, Illinois and Munster, Indiana, she has a passion for making each home one-of-a-kind and customized to fit the personality and style of each family.

From full remodels on Renovation Goldmine to furniture and decor, Meg brings a unique perspective to making your home uniquely yours.

What were some personal highlights for you in 2023?

Opening up a second location in Munster, IN, growing over 20% as a business, reaching 65k followers to share my work on Instagram, renovating our kitchen to be the one of our dreams, enrolling our boys into a new school that we love!

What do you look forward to in 2024?

I look forward to 2024 being a year of really nailing down our workflows so that we can continue to expand in 2025, finishing our house renovations, spending more quality time with my family and allowing ourselves to be open to whatever 2024 brings our way!

What gives you hope right now for the future?

The expansion in NWI right now is so exciting and I am hoping to be a part of the change that brings families joy in the home or even new homes that they live in! We hope to make NWI more and more beautiful through each home we design and in the ways that we can give back to the community as well.

Faith SpencerFaith Spencer (Gary, Ind.)

Founder & CEO

IronWorkz Corporation

Faith Spencer is a self-driven and passionate entrepreneur, community leader and technology consultant. Born and raised in Gary, Indiana, she is a graduate of Purdue University with a double major in Cybersecurity and Network Engineering, a minor in Organizational Leadership and a Certificate in Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

Faith is currently an Enterprise Technology Consultant at West Monroe Partners in Chicago, Illinois, where she helps clients solve complex business challenges through technology solutions. She is also the founder and CEO of IronWorkz Corporation, a nonprofit organization that provides a dynamic business incubator to support minority students and small businesses in Gary, Indiana.

IronWorkz hosts educational workshops on entrepreneurship, financial literacy and black history. Through her work at IronWorkz, Faith is committed to inspiring young minds and small businesses and to helping revitalize her community.

What were some personal highlights for you in 2023?

  • Graduated May 2023
  • Spoke on a Juneteenth Panel related to youth and the future
  • Guest Speaker at the Innovate WithIN State Competition
  • Traveled to Italy where I met/spoke with entrepreneur guru’s Horacio Pagani and Giampaolo Dallara
  • Guest Speaker at the NWI Women’s Leadership & Innovation Summit
  • Guest Speaker for the Society of Innovators Lunch & Lead Series
  • Gary TEDx Speaker

What do you look forward to in 2024?

I am eager to build new connections with leaders in the NWI region and deepen my understanding of the community’s needs. I am also enthusiastic about actively interacting with students and sharing valuable insights and experiences pertaining to entrepreneurship and life beyond high school.

What gives you hope right now for the future?

When considering the future of IronWorkz, the IW team give me a sense of hope! The team is made up of exceptionally bright minds and I am excited to witness the transformative impact they will undoubtedly have on the community.

Jacqueline ThomasJacqueline Thomas (La Porte, Ind.)


South Shore Public Relations

With two decades of experience in strategic communication and public relations, Jacqueline Thomas is a seasoned professional whose career has traversed various sectors, including optical, technology, public affairs, infrastructure and the non-profit industry.

Notable accomplishments include establishing Anglotopia as the world’s largest anglophile website, providing crucial crisis management during the early days of the 2020 global pandemic for the Professional Convention Management Association and leading North American communications for a major global optical company. Jacqueline recently founded her own public relations firm, South Shore Public Relations.

Her commitment to public relations education is reflected in her involvement with organizations such as the Public Relations Society of America as a sitting board member of the Chicago chapter, Membership Ambassadors for both the Duneland Chamber and Michigan City Chamber of Commences and the Commission on Public Relations Education Research. Specializing in crisis management and business-to-business communications, Jacqueline holds a Bachelor’s degree in Communications from Purdue University, supplemented by a Master’s degree in Strategic Communications from Purdue as well.

Recognized as a 2023 Emerging Optical Leader of Tomorrow by the Vision Council, Jacqueline’s extensive experience and dedication to professional development distinguish her as a leader in the field, leaving a positive and lasting impact on the organizations she serves and the causes she advocates for.

What were some personal highlights for you in 2023?

My highlights for 2023 included being named one of the 2023 Emerging Optical Leaders of Tomorrow by the Vision Council, Volunteering with the Public Relations Society of America- Los Angeles Chapter, Election to the 2023 Public Relations Society of America- Chicago Chapter’s Board of Directors, Serving as an Ambassador for both the Duneland Chamber of Commerce and Michigan City Chamber of Commerce.

My biggest highlight of 2023 was starting my own public relations firm, South Shore Public Relations, bringing my love of public relations to Northwest Indiana.

What do you look forward to in 2024?

I look forward to growing South Shore Public Relations so that we may continue to serve the communications needs of businesses and organizations in our area. I also look forward to continuing to volunteer in my community.

What gives you hope right now for the future?

The way that women, support, protect and champion each other.

Darien ThompsonDarien Thompson (Hammond and Westville, Ind.)

Director of Student Success & Urban Engagement

Purdue University Northwest

Darien serves as the Director of Student Success and Urban Engagement for Enrollment Management and Student Affairs, where she plays a role in recruitment, retention, professional development, community engagement and belonging. She co-chairs PNW’s Cultural Heritage Committee and leads efforts for MLK Day, Black History Month and Juneteenth celebrations.

Prior to PNW, Darien spent time at the Daniels School of Business on the West Lafayette campus as the Associate Director of Diversity Initiatives. Darien also served as the Director of BOP Future Scholars and sits on the board of directors for the Purdue Black Alumni Association. Darien earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management and MBA from PNW. A member of the 1,000-point club, Darien was a four-year letter winner for the PNW women’s basketball team.

What were some personal highlights for you in 2023?

Hosting the largest cohort of students for BOP Future Scholars. Awarded the Purdue Black Caucus of Faculty & Staff, Staff Member of the Year. Returning to my alma mater in a new role as the Director of Student Success & Urban Engagement

What do you look forward to in 2024?

I look forward to growing the Unity Hub office at PNW and continuing to build meaningful relationships within the Region and PNW community.

What gives you hope right now for the future?

Having the opportunity to provide resources and be an advocate to help students reach their goals gives me hope for the future. The youth in the community are our future leaders and if we’re able to help them along the journey then our future is bright!

Catisha ToneyCatisha Toney (Merrillville, Ind.)

President & CEO

Coates, Inc.

Catisha Toney is the Founder and Executive Director of Coates, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to educational equity and providing college and career strategies to young adults and their families. She is a graduate of Indiana University who has more than 15 years of experience in P-16 education and college and career programming.

Throughout her entire career, she has been working for, speaking for and representing underserved students. Catisha is an advocate for equity in education and an educator who is passionate about creating opportunities for underserved students and young adults so that they can pursue their dreams and positively impact their families and communities.

What were some personal highlights for you in 2023?

2023 was a great year for me personally and professionally! I traveled more, made family memories, renovated my home and saw so many family members embark on new life milestones. My organization was inducted into the Society of Innovators at Purdue Northwest for our new college and career mobile and we made so much impact. 2023 confirmed that we are doing great work and the need is there. This was a year of confirmation for me and my organization. We are just getting started!

What do you look forward to in 2024?

In 2024 I personally look forward to spending more time traveling with my family and experiencing new things, starting back abstract painting in my spare time and trying more restaurants. Professionally, I plan to expand my services with Coates Inc. by partnering with more schools and organizations in northwest Indiana and piloting a program that helps to increase career exposure to more youth in the community.

What gives you hope right now for the future?

What gives me hope right now is the opportunities and potential partnerships that have come my way. I know that we are going to make a larger impact this year and I just can’t wait to get to work and move forward on our exciting strategic plans! We are going to expand our work this year to more cities and another state so big things in store for the future.

Becca TuholskiBecca Tuholski (La Porte, Ind.)

Local Food Access Coordinator

NWI Food Council

Becca Tuholski has an undeniable passion for local food systems, resilient community building and community education. From her time as an agriculture and natural resources educator at LaPorte High School to her ongoing career as a beginning farmer alongside her husband on their farm (Tuholski Produce), to her current role as the Local Food Access Coordinator with the NWI Food Council, Becca is dedicated to strengthening our food system from the ground up.

What were some personal highlights for you in 2023?

My husband and I had our first baby girl in April 2023, following many years of infertility and IVF. She is the light of my life, an avid adventurer and a budding local foodie.

I settled into my role as the new Local Food Access Coordinator at NWI Food Council and developed, secured funding for and implemented the FarmHer to Mama program through grant funding from the Indiana Department of Health and in partnership with local female farmers and producers, Nurse-Family Partnership and Purdue Extension. This program empowers first-time new mothers who are at or below 250% of the Federal Poverty Level through monthly local food tote deliveries, nutrition education resources and a close-knit community of supportive women. This initiative is entirely female-run and -led. In addition to my role as program lead, I am also honored to serve as a FarmHer through the program with my farm, Tuholski Produce. As a first-time new mom myself, it is so special to me to be able to support others moms in this way and build this community together.

I was able to help my community’s farmers market — Farmed & Forged in La Porte — become eligible for SNAP acceptance! I also helped the market get set up with Double Up programming, which allows individuals who utilize SNAP to double their funds — up to $20 per day — to use on SNAP-eligible items at the market.

My farm was the only farm to become eligible for WIC eFMNP acceptance in 2023. Through this program, we were able to provide over $1,500 in local produce to La Porte families with WIC benefits.

I got back into running! Amid motherhood, farming, my local food work with NWI Food Council and life, it has been wonderful to carve out this downtime for myself.

What do you look forward to in 2024?

Personally: Continuing to get outdoors! We have several adventures planned for this year, including a trip to Joshua Tree National Park. I can’t wait to continue to see the world anew through my daughter’s eyes.

Professionally: Continuing to expand local food access in the NWI region through Tuholski Produce and the NWI Food Council. I can’t wait to see how our Council programming evolves this year; I hope our work can serve as a guide for others as we cultivate connections and bridge the needs of farm viability and food access/justice through intentional, trauma-informed, community-driven programming.

What gives you hope right now for the future?

My daughter and all the young people of the world.

I think often about the work my daughter sees me doing, as she accompanies me to the field or to my in-person meetings and I can’t help but wonder how these experiences will shape her. I hope she knows how incredibly strong women are. I hope she knows the beauty and power in relationship-building. I hope she is always filled with wonder for the natural world. I hope she knows the importance of advocating for justice. And I hope that she shares all that she learns with the world.

This work that we are engaging in is setting the stage for generations to come; building resilient, just and equitable communities is a long but incredibly worthwhile road.

Shannon WalkerShannon Walker (La Porte, Ind.)

Vice President

Unity Foundation of La Porte County

Shannon Walker serves as Vice President at Unity Foundation of La Porte County. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Public Relations from Franklin College and a Master of Science in Technology, Leadership and Innovation from Purdue Polytechnic Institute at Purdue University.

She received a Nonprofit Management Certificate from Indiana School of Philanthropy’s Executive Education Program as part of the 2019 Healthcare Foundation of La Porte’s Nonprofit Leadership Cohort and participated in the 37th class of Leadership La Porte County.

Walker is a 2023 graduate of the Mutz Philanthropic Leadership Institute facilitated Indiana Philanthropy Alliance and IU School of Philanthropy. She resides in La Porte with her family.

What were some personal highlights for you in 2023?

Professionally, I am thrilled to have completed the 2023 Mutz Philanthropic Institute in October 2023, graduating alongside 22 other statewide philanthropic leaders. The Mutz Philanthropic Institute was a year-long cohort. Learning sessions were held throughout the state and facilitated by over 72 nationwide panelists. (curated by Indiana Philanthropy Alliance and IU School of Philanthropy) I’m proud of the partnership with many county-wide stakeholders on early learning and childcare grant opportunities. I am passionate about increasing access to affordable and equitable childcare and early learning in La Porte County.

Another highlight is working on a fantastic team with incredibly talented professionals at Unity Foundation of La Porte County. I’m lucky and blessed. On a personal level, it’s been a joy to watch my daughter grow and excel in middle school and on her City Elite travel basketball team.

I also enjoyed a wonderful 15th anniversary trip to Mexico with my husband this year.

What do you look forward to in 2024?

I look forward to more learning, growth and collaboration with community stakeholders and partners in my work at Unity Foundation of La Porte County. There are many important local and regional community betterment efforts in progress. I can’t wait to continue the journey and see the fruits of these important efforts. I also look forward to continuing professional growth with the incredible team at Unity Foundation of La Porte County. Our work can be challenging and complex.

It’s a joy to work alongside innovative, strategic and supportive colleagues. Personally, I look forward to intentional time with my family, continued travels and making memories together. I love supporting my daughter’s academic, athletic and music goals.

What gives you hope right now for the future?

I am encouraged and hopeful by the new leadership and investments throughout La Porte County. It’s incredible to see people of all ages and backgrounds step up, get involved and make a difference in their communities. Momentum keeps building and positive change is taking place.

La Porte County is a special place to live, work and raise a family. I am so hopeful for the continued progress around a variety of quality of life and placemaking efforts.

Jen YednakJen Yednak (Chesterton, Ind.)

Owner & Cake Designer

Jen’s Gourmet Cakes

I gain great pleasure from spreading positive experiences to both my loved ones and acquaintances.

I have observed that cakes and cupcakes have a wonderful impact on people’s happiness, which is why I consistently strive to perform at my best whenever I get the opportunity to make a cake for anyone.


What were some personal highlights for you in 2023?

Introducing my bakery to the public, receiving recognition as the first Filipino bakery in Indiana, being an active member of my community and meeting Governor Eric Holcomb.

What do you look forward to in 2024?

I am sincerely devoted to continuing to share the many delicious flavors of the Philippines with my community as well as wider audiences.

What gives you hope right now for the future?

My enthusiasm for my journey gives me hope that the future will not only be bright but also enjoyable.

Giana ZylaGianna Zyla (Portage, Ind.)

Manager Asset and Risk Management


Gianna was born in Cuba and immigrated to the United States in the late 90’s with her family. She was raised in Lansing, Michigan; eventually attending Michigan Technological University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering.

Upon graduation, Gianna relocated to Northwest Indiana to join the steel industry as a Project Engineer and Supervisor. Gianna spent three and a half years in the steel industry prior to joining NiSource/NIPSCO in 2019. She is currently the Manager, Asset and Risk Management for supplemental gas (underground storage, liquified natural gas and propane) and regulating station assets for NiSource. Gianna has a passion for personal development and strives for continual improvement.

In her free time, Gianna is an avid runner and is training for her second full marathon. She loves spending time with her husband, Jackson and their golden retriever, Remy.

What were some personal highlights for you in 2023?

2023 was a fantastic year! I accepted a new position at NiSource as Manager Asset and Risk Management focused on our regulating stations and supplemental gas assets. Through this position, I have been able to continue to drive a culture of safety and my own professional development. I also joined the leadership team of NiSource’s DAWN (Developing and Advancing Women at NiSource) employee resource group. In this role, I have been able to continue to support an inclusive work culture and the continued development of those within NiSource. 2023 was also the year I was nominated for and won Northwest Indiana Influential Women of the Year award in STEM. I loved connecting with the stories of my fellow nominees and how impressively talented the northwest region of our State is! I enjoyed various volunteer events throughout the region and am looking forward to continued outreach within my community. Finally, 2023 was also the year I married my now husband, finding the strength to run a half marathon (me) and marathon (him) on the day of our ceremony.

What do you look forward to in 2024?

2024 will be a year of continued growth and challenging the status quo, “if you’re bored, you’re not growing!”. I am excited to continue supporting our local parks through my role within the Porter County Parks Foundation Board.

One of my greatest passions is pre-college and college outreach with students. I love connecting with students and showing my love for the STEM field. Ultimately mentors and role models were a huge factor in developing the woman I am today, I want to inspire students in the same way in 2024 and beyond. My husband and I are also looking to do a lot of travelling in 2024, hopefully I can get him on at least one international trip!

What gives you hope right now for the future?

People who are brave and always drive forward give me true hope for the future. Every day, every person is faced will challenges. Those who are presented those challenges and see them as opportunities, meeting them head on, show me that anything is truly possible. That mentality is what is going to push us and our communities to continuously build a brighter future.

Women on the Rise is a collaboration between the Society of Innovators and the Leadership Institute at Purdue Northwest.